Long in the tooth, but lots of byte

Brian Stevenson reckons the £69 he paid for his 10-year-old IBM XT was money well spent
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Indy Lifestyle Online
There is a shop in Ealing that will sell you a computer for £69. It isn't a new one, or even a nearly new one, but it's an IBM computer and comes with a six-month warranty. It's an XT. Yes, I know it's incredibly slow compared with a 486, but I just wanted to try a computer and didn't want to spend more than £1,000 to find out if we would be compatible.

I asked lots of computer people what I should buy, and read several articles extolling the virtues of buying something "cheap". What qualifies as "cheap" seems to involve parting company with the best part of £400-£500. The argument goes like this: you need at least a 386 because you want Windows and anything else is so slow it's not worth having. The flaw here is that it only appears slow if you have the skills to go fast. Don't get a basic 386, they say, because it won't have enough memory. It will if you spend more time looking at the manual and cursing than whizzing around the programs. Then there are those who tell you to ignore anything so out of date as a 386: their idea of "cheap" is working your way down (but not too far) from £1,000.

Why do I want a computer? Because we have been promised them at work for longer than I care to remember and now they are actually on their way, and because I have two young children who will soon be appalled at my lack of knowledge.

What do I want a computer to do? That's a good question to ask people, mainly because most of them, like me, do not know the answer. The computer's price does not seem to affect the typical sales-floor routine:

"I am interested in this computer. What it can do?"

"What do you want it to do?"

"I don't know; what will it do?"

"But what do you want it to do?" etc, etc.

I decided that if I was to buy my way into this question-and-answer routine it would be at the cheapest possible price.

There is a tendency for people to be suspicious of a £69 computer, either because they are used to a faster, more modern machine or because they regard anything 10 years old as redundant. True, the computer revolution has moved on apace in that time but look at the XT in context. Ten years ago people were queuing up to part with a couple of thousand pounds to get their hands on this latest technology. The 20-megabyte hard disk alone was a revolution; not long before, that sort of capacity would have required something the size of three washing machines.

I set out to find what my new acquisition would do. First, loaded with Letter Perfect software, it's an efficient word-processor: if it did nothing else, this alone would justify its keep, being streets ahead of my typewriter. What else? Well, I've put in Lotus 123, which can calculate to the penny how much (or how little) we have in the bank. I would rather avoid nasty shocks like that, but if you're into book-keeping, or fancy calculating the present value of an ordinary annuity or a sum-of-the-years'-digits depreciation of an asset for a specified period, my XT can oblige.

More usefully, its spreadsheet facility will store the total number of cases my office deals with, broken down into probation orders, people in prison, etc, and will rejig the figures when I change them. Or it did: the next trick is to find them again, but I kept losing figures on a 486 with Windows, too, so I'll keep counting my change.

Games. I could play them, but they bore me after a couple of tries. Someone gave me Zork, but once I've got to the loft with the lamp, the rope and the sword I can't be bothered any more.

Once I had joined the computer owners, I felt capable of asking questions of my more computer-literate friends. Thus I discovered I am not the only owner of a computer with a sub-£100 price-tag. Dan the journalist is knocking out articles on his. The shop fitted a modem for around £50 so now he can fax them off to the Times (London or New York) from his back room. If he paid around £6 a month to join Compuserve, he could trawl in more information than he could process.

Another friend is a physics lecturer researching into black holes. He uses his to construct a mathematical model of a supernova. With the aid of a second-hand modem (£15) we could zoom around the library of Imperial College and then to Cambridge to check the latest papers. As a finale we sent e-mail to his opposite number in Sydney. Beyond "Dear Bruce," I'm lost, but by the time Peter awoke the next morning his elderly computer probably contained a reply from the other side of the world.

So if you fancy dipping a toe into the world of computers, don't feel you have to part with armfuls of cash. Try an XT. If you want something fancier or find it's not your thing, you won't have spent a pile of money.

The writer is a probation officer in west London.

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